FOR MOST OF HER almost 7 years, Susannah has been a kind of demilitarized zone for my children, her across-the-street neighbors.
She - and her parents and older brother - moved in when she was just a week old and she was a newborn curiosity to my son and daughter, who were just 7 and 5 then. But babies are boring after about 10 minutes, and Susannah did not show up on their radar screens for almost two more years.
By then, my Joe was her Joe. He was 9 years old, but he must have looked to her as if he'd stepped down from Mount Olympus instead of from across the street.
"It was the sweetest thing," Susannah's mother remembers. "Joe was always sweet with her and gentle with her. There was this attachment, and it went on and on. Wherever he was, she wanted to go see him."
Susannah referred to him as "my Joe." She would call for him from her bedroom window, and her shameless pursuit amused the grown-ups.
"Joe went out of his way, and she felt that," Susannah's mother says. "He was very solicitous. He would walk her around holding her hand."
What we were witnessing, but did not know at the time, was the very common affinity that toddlers and preteen boys have for each other - because no one has it for them.
Both ages are wrestling with issues of control and self-sufficiency. Both are going through physical changes at a speed unmatched at any other time in their development. Is it any wonder they are drawn to each other? They are undemanding company at a time when each is feeling irritable and unloved.
For a long time, Susannah had no interest in Jessie, who might have satisfied the aspirational nature of young girls, who adore the older girls in their sphere and seek to be like them and be liked by them.
"That surprised me, I guess," says Susannah's mother. "I would have thought it would have been Jessie that she wanted."
Well, she wants Jessie now, and the two are inseparable, despite the five-year difference in their ages. And, once again, Susannah is a safety zone for one of my children.
Jessie is a sixth-grader now, on the lip of adolescence. And it is a hard place. A good day is a day when no one notices her.
"No one makes fun of me," is all Jessie can say when, feeling wretched, she is asked by me to list the good things in her life.
Susannah is Jessie's connection to Little Girldom, a place to which Jessie retreats at the end of a tough day in Preteen Hell.
They play with Beanie
Babies and Barbies, creating narratives and constructing communities around Susannah's pond or in the shade of Jessie's favorite tree.
Of course, Jessie has also taught Susannah the words to Spice (( Girl songs, but Susannah's mother doesn't seem to mind.
"Jessie doesn't come to
Susannah with talk about boys and dating. She isn't talking to Susannah about what body part she is going to have pierced. She doesn't present Susannah with any middle-school issues."
Of course not. Susannah is Jessie's escape from all that. The emotional fatigue of being 12 relents in the company of her friend.
Susannah is only in first grade, and she is too young to understand any of this. But I hope I live long enough to dance at her wedding, because I want a chance to tell her what she was to my children - a safe haven when they needed her most.
! Pub date: 5/24/98